Veterans Program sparks hope and mystery | Columbia County
HILLSDALE – The Hope for Heroes Foundation has come to attention in Hillsdale for a sign posted on their property on Route 71, just off Route 22.
The wooden sign reads ‘Future Home of Hope for Heroes’, along with the organization’s website and logo.
The Dutchess County-based nonprofit was founded in 2010 by executive director Mitch Serlin, a retired Westchester County police officer and the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Scout Sniper. Serlin has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and formed Hope for Heroes to provide experiences that are physically and emotionally attainable for veterans and emergency responders with disabilities.
The group has a three-bedroom getaway on 1,530 acres in Kentucky where members hunt and fish and plans to build a six-bedroom house in Hillsdale.
But some residents were taken aback by the organisation’s presence in the town.
Resident Alex Bloomstein spoke about the organization at the city council meeting on Tuesday evening. He said he noticed a sign for the organization and was taken aback by its construction plans. The language used on the organization’s website and social media appears to have a definite grand design for the venue, he added. “I’m just wondering if anyone in town knows anything about what’s planned there,” he said.
Bloomstein highlighted the language on the organization’s website: “Our most ambitious plan is to build a 120-acre handicap-accessible pavilion in beautiful Hillsdale, New York, where heroes can gather for outdoor events, which will include hunting, fishing, kayaking and skiing. The organization has photos of people digging a hole to install the sign, he said. Bloomstein said the group used an excavator for the sign and did not believe the group had obtained a permit for their sign or any other construction.
The Hope for Heroes Foundation posted on Facebook on April 11 thanking donors and announcing the future site of its Hillsdale lodge: “This sign means more than just a placeholder for our future lodge, it represents hope for so many other future heroes we can reach!!!”
Board member Steven Tiger said he remembered the band coming to the board and mentioning an idea for the site. Board member Robina Ward said she felt the band came to the board a few years ago.
Assistant City Clerk Elizabeth Sheer said she spoke with city building inspector and code enforcement officer Lee Heim, who said he had not been contacted by the group. Sheer assured the board that nothing was being built right now other than the sign.
Barbara Pascale Olsen, chair of the Planning Council, said some information was presented to the council last summer, but not an application or site plan. The zoning board determined that the group was exempt from planning board review as a nonprofit, she recalled.
Ward said anyone building anything in the town is subject to Planning Board approval, whether or not they are a charity. Tiger agreed, saying there were no exceptions.
But engineer Pat Prendergast of Valatie, who presented the group’s plan to the zoning board, said city code says nonprofits don’t need site plan approval. on properties over 10 acres.
Prendergast said the group got the green light from the zoning board two years ago and did not need site plan approval from the planning board. He said that although the chairman of the planning board was upset about it at the time, it was “100% legally done”.
Town Supervisor Christian Kersten said he spoke to the Sheriff’s Department after receiving complaints from residents about men on the property firing guns into the air.
Serlin said Wednesday that the group plans to hold hunting trips on the property but will not turn it into a shooting range.
Hunting is one of the activities the group plans to participate in on the property and in the community. “Columbia County offers so much,” Serlin said.
The group plans to produce maple syrup, fodder, skiing, fish and potentially snowmobiling. While the land will be the group’s main site, they plan to support local businesses, he said. “Based on our needs, we bring tourism and spotlight Columbia County because some of the people who will be with us have never been there before and don’t know it,” he said. “… I think Hillsdale and Columbia County is one of the most beautiful places in the country.”
Hillsdale is not unfamiliar territory for Serlin. His family would visit him on weekends as he grew up, traveling to Catamount and Lake Copake. “I’ve been in the community since I was a kid,” he said. “The area is so beautiful, you can’t beat the Hudson Valley.”
Serlin’s organization serves about 50 people a year, but he hopes that will grow with the Hillsdale property.
“Once we get a foothold there and start hosting events, the number will grow, but it won’t be thousands,” he said. “It will be hundreds or whatever.”
The group usually accommodates between four and six people, and sometimes up to 10, at events. The group plans to build a six-bedroom home on its Hillsdale property, but does not yet have a construction schedule as it raises funds for projected costs of $1.2 million.
“Unfortunately, until we get some of the funds, we don’t have a target date yet, but once we get the funds for the building and hear back from the grant process, we will have maybe a better idea of when we’re going to start the project,” he said.
Many of the group’s donors are in the northeast, and Serlin likes to invite donors to participate in group events rather than just sending a check, which gives Hillsdale another appeal.
“I love Kentucky, but the money is in the northeast,” he said. The group purchased the Hillsdale property in the fall and used it for hunting and metal detecting, Serlin said.
“We’re just an organization that’s just trying to help heal and empower,” he said. “As we say, we are empowering our country’s disabled heroes. That’s all we try to do.